On asking the right questions
While reading Thiselton's brilliant The Hermeneutics of Doctrine recently, which I will review in the next few weeks, I had a surprisingly simple 'ah ha!' moment. 'Gadamer follows R. G. Collingwood', Thiselton explains, 'in the belief that we can say that we understand "only when we understand the question to which something is the answer ..."' (p. 4).
I am presently running a bible course in Tübingen, looking at the Apostle Paul, and the relevance of this statement hit me with fresh insight. One of the foundations for understanding the Apostle, I am arguing (following Wright, peace be upon him), is the relation between 'creation' and 'covenant' (cf. Eph. 1-3; Rom. 1-11; Col. 1:15-20; Gal. 3-4; 2 Cor. 3-5; 1 Cor. 15 etc.). So I started the course this evening with the following words:
In order to best understand a text, it is important to know the question(s) to which that text is supposed to be an answer. For Paul, this means we need to understand the importance of the relation between creation and covenant.
I explained the first part of the proposition in the following way:
Imagine if an alien comes to earth and discovers a phone book, our green man will not be able to understand the lists of numbers unless he has some understanding of human communication, technology and specifically the phone system. He may sit down with the phone book in front of him and develop all kinds of theories concerning what kind of information it gives him, and what the phonebook personally say to him, but unless he knows some of the necessary background information he won't be able to formulate the right questions about the purpose and content of the phone book.
I continued with reference to an amusing story:
In reading Paul we are reading somebody else's mail. And whether we come to his letters with the right questions will determine how far we understand him. An amusing, and extreme, example of misunderstanding somebody else's mail is worth citing:
An American Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to experience warm weather during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules.
So, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the following day. The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realising his error, sent the email.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston , a widow had just returned home from her husband's funeral. He was a minister who died and went to be with Christ following a heart attack. The widow decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. The widow's son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:
To: My Loving Wife
Subject: I've Arrived
Date: October 16, 2005
I know you're surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I've just arrived and have been checked in. I've seen that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then!!!! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.
P.S. Sure is freaking hot down here!!!!
This happened because of an unfortunate coincidence of appropriate language in two very different situations. Does the fact that we use the same language as Paul (such as 'gospel', 'the righteousness of God', 'sin' etc.) sometimes give many of us the deceptive feel that we understand Paul, when indeed in many areas we do not?